The Artist-Writer-Thespian Whose Zine Has Been Wowing Readers for 23 Years

Narratively contributor Ayun Halliday muses on her longrunning zine “The East Village Inky,” and on what inspires her unique creative process.

The Artist-Writer-Thespian Whose Zine Has Been Wowing Readers for 23 Years

Ayun Halliday’s hand-drawn comics and illustrations for Narratively are rife with slapstick comedy, raw vulnerability and undeniable camp, garnering giggles and gasps from start to finish. Readers who enjoy those are bound to react similarly to Ayun’s other work. A Northwestern graduate with a background in theater; a prolific graphic novelist; a mother of two; and the purveyor of an award-winning mini-magazine, or zine, The East Village Inky, Ayun is a master of doing her own thing.

Since The East Village Inky’s first issue way back in 1998, Halliday has chronicled her meandering journey as a mother and native New Yorker with her signature zany sketches. She talked to Narratively about how learning to embrace what makes her a misfit ultimately helped her find her creative voice. 

You call yourself the “Chief Primatologist” of your long-running and critically-acclaimed print zine, The East Village Inky. Care to elaborate on what this title means to you, and how it speaks to the spirit of the Inky

The zine has probably been the most important part of any creative life work I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the most long-lasting and the one with which I’m most identified, but also it’s this little, tiny thing that most people will never hear about. It’s this small project that looms large in my own life, the way a lot of childrens’ imaginary games are really important to them. Therefore, I thought, Hey, there’s no reason that I shouldn’t do a little world-building and give myself the most ridiculous title I want to give myself. I can’t even remember when “Chief Primatologist” became part of the whole package, but it was probably when my children were a lot younger. My husband and I would refer to the children as the “little monkeys.” But it’s hilarious: I mean, people really think I’m a primatologist, when I’m not at all. Although my daughter, India, actually grew up to earn a degree in anthropology and studied chimpanzees, so I’m the fake primatologist.

You have this unique ability to weave a consistent thread of humor, wit, and sensibility into all of your work, whether it’s a side column in one of your graphic novels or the riveting historical comic you published in Narratively. Tell us about the role comedy plays in your storytelling.

I think, for me, humor is sort of a coping mechanism and a combination of having been an only child, and then really becoming an only child when my parents divorced and I was left to my own devices. I was good at art. I went to this really small school, and when we all hit seventh grade, the pack reshuffled itself, and suddenly I was at the bottom. But I had to save face, so a lot of things hurt, and I would pretend like they didn’t, and part of pretending was making fun of myself and pointing out my own flaws. Plus, it amuses me, and in the zine especially, I can say whatever the hell I want to, and in whatever form I want to. But at the same time, it’s so much work. I don’t want it to sound like boilerplate. I want it to sound like me, like I’m the only person who could have written it. 

Your voice is indeed very distinct, visuals aside. What does your creative process look like, and how did it help you to discover and develop your unique style? 

I am the sort of writer who, usually by the second draft, thinks, Oh this is genius. Let’s go to the bar! I kind of do my thing, then I do my thing again, and then I am incorrectly convinced that it is fit for public consumption at that point. I think that has kind of contributed to this sort of freewheeling, ramshackle style that is mine now, for better or for worse. Also, I think a lot of theater people, particularly playwrights or people who write for their own performances, develop a pretty good ear for dialogue. Plus, if you live in the best city in the world like I do, you’re constantly picking up little bits of dialogue in the street, and it gives such a flavor of how people actually talk. I always try to capture that when I can. 

As you mention in the East Village Inky’s February edition, you’re unequivocally more of a thespian than anything else, so how does your background in theater play into your writing?

When I was in my twenties, I was cast in an ensemble called the Neo-Futurists, and we had a cash-cow show called Too Much Light Makes a Baby Go Blind. A total of 30 plays in 60 minutes performed in random order, and we had all of these tenets based on Italian Futurism and some other inventive tenets including planned obsolescence. So there were these parameters, and I found the more boundaries I had, the better the writing was. When you’re forced to be creative, you end up writing something you wouldn’t otherwise. I did that for a total of 10 years and that really developed my writing voice, as well as my autobiographical writing voice. My background in theater also informed how I plan out the zine, from what will make it funny, to how to create a three-dimensional experience for readers, with facial expressions often delivering the actual punchline. 

Aside from the zine, you’ve also created two comic strips featuring your children for Narratively: one about your daughter with epilepsy, and the other about your son watching his own birth video. How did motherhood change your perspective as a writer, if at all?

It most definitely did. The zine came about because I’d gone about a year without doing any theater. I was an unexpected mother and living in a teeny tiny apartment in the East Village, so tiny that I had to go outside every day with this baby on my back, observing and eavesdropping. So, that became the subject: motherhood. That reminds me of the best piece of hate mail I ever got, during the early days of the zine. I was starting to get nice letters from mostly women in similar boats, but this one man wrote that I seem to sentimentalize childhood just like Charles Dickens, and I was like, “Wow, you really hurt my feelings there!” Even though it can be terrible when you’re living it, I think the anarchy of little children can be really funny  the way they express themselves, the way they resist stuff, and the way they kind of fuck up adults’ best laid plans. However, I think people also incorrectly assume that my life is an open book for public consumption, when in reality, I’ve tried to maintain a zone of privacy around certain sensitive subjects with the children. Sometimes as an autobiographical or memoir writer, you have to make these judgment calls and erase the slate, even if a punchline is really funny or true. Sometimes it’s not worth it if it’s going to hurt someone’s feelings for a cheap shot. It took me a long time to learn that. 

That’s some solvent writerly advice as well. Before we wrap up, what lasting piece of advice would you give to the next generation of multi-faceted, mixed-media creatives? 

Be aware of how good something feels as you are indulging in a creative endeavor and similarly, be aware if it’s really stressing you out every time you do something in this genre. If it makes you feel like you’re a happy little kid playing, lean hard into the thing that makes you feel that way even if it’s not fashionable, even if it doesn’t seem like it’s going to give you that professional recognition and accolades you think you want and deserve. I have a lot of thoughts about education and I believe every student should be encouraged and made to feel like they are an equally valuable member of the community. If you’re not one who gets selected for the top of the pile, I advocate that you should crawl out from under the pile and do your own thing. Maybe crawl as far away from the pile as you can and climb up something else. 

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